(c) by ZZ Claybourne
The tape played.
“I’ve seen you feed. Several times. You trust me that much? Catching and sniffing at the air that quick way you do. You that secure or is the plan to come for me? Nine nights I’ve seen you. When I hid behind a tree I imagined you saw me through the bark. I knew all I had to do was peer around the side and you’d be there, distant, standing in sharp silhouette. Glowing eyes looking dead at me. You’re a witch. You made me do this. All day I think about you, what you look like, what your name is, where you shop. All the things like how your hair looks after you’ve been caught in the rain. Do you get caught in the rain? And then at night I search the woods, hoping to see a shadow or your quick form shooting between the trees, so soundless, so quiet…God, you’re quiet! First time I saw you is the only time I’ve heard you make a sound. Terrified as I was with that rifle in hand, paralyzed behind those berry bushes, you saw me and deliberately finished your feed, made that sound again, and left like a leopard. God, what the hell was that? It sounded like dying. Every night this month I’ve been out no matter what the weather. In the rain. In the fog. Do you understand? I’m only doing this because you let me. Nine times I’ve watched you and followed wherever you led. Or tried to. I’m only doing this because I know you can’t ignore it like you do me in the woods. I’ve got copies of this in safe places. And there’s an attack dog here, and I sleep with my gun. I’ve covered my ass. Believe it. I disappear and people will know.”
She stopped the tape at that point, not even halfway finished, and ejected it. Long fingers closed around it, crushed the plastic rectangle, and dropped the pieces into the trash. Rain blurred the window. She stood, stretched just for the sensation, and walked to the open door of the cabin where she leaned against the frame and watched the rain shatter on her porch. Just beyond it the ground dotted into islands of mud. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. For ages she’d enjoyed the scent of forest rain.
She decided to take the player back to him in a little while, wrapped tight in plastic since he’d so thoughtfully provided machine along with the tape. In a few hours the grey sky would go dark.
She imagined him asleep with rifle and dog patrolling his dreams to keep nightmares away. Nice voice, she thought. Dramatic flair. Verbose, as they usually were. Could’ve made a decent actor.
She went to her small, stove-less kitchen. Preliminaries. She opened the cupboard for her Jar of Life, a large teal jar made by a lovestruck missionary in nineteenth century Chokwe (who then followed her to Franceville until she finally had to leave the country altogether). The jar contained packets of milky, gelatinous goo. She punctured one with a tooth and squeezed its contents oozed onto her tongue, the grimace instantaneous, the taste horrid, but it dulled the pains of transformation.
Then she bit into a lemon. It obliterated the stink of a taste. For something to unscrew her face, that would be the rum she kept in the bottom cupboard.
She watched him cry.
His name was Paul. He knelt on the ground, hands holding the black barrel pointed upward as if to shoot the moon. He shook. He bit his lower lip to keep it from trembling. The gutted carcass of his dog looked at him, its head impossibly twisted. Paul whimpered at it.
“I’m sorry. Why’d you do it?” he put to Lilith, knowing she was out there somewhere. “He was just a fuckin’ dog. Why’d you kill the damn dog? Fucking bitch!” The dog always barked. But when it stopped barking, stopped on a dime, silence roared. Silence yanked him from his dreams. He woke with goosebumps. All night he dreamed of the cassette, of why he wasn’t out tonight…and he knew it was her the same way he knew that the beast was female: she had made a connection with him (he was sure of it), had planted her eyes in too many of his fantasies and thoughts. His hands were clammy on the gun stock as he crept out in underwear and slippers. He noticed the plastic-wrapped cassette player immediately, placed as it was just out of reach of the door’s arc, water beads on the wrapping. She had been on his porch. She was intelligent.
And then the dog at the side of the house, neck broken and partially eaten. He clapped a hand over his mouth. Vomit spilled from his fingers, some of it spotting the dog’s carcass before he could turn. He whirled, taking his hand away, and vomited till his chest ached and the dry heaves cracked. When they passed, he flecked bits of food off his hand, then wiped the hand on the hip of his briefs. His eyes watered so badly he couldn’t see.
He plopped his butt to the squishy grass; made no move to clear his sight. Time without feeling passed, minutes without thought or meaning, before he braced his hands near the tip of the rifle and got to his knees. Eventually he stood. Thirty minutes after that he wiped sweat from his forehead, leaving a grimy streak. He jabbed his shovel into the ground beside a mound of muddy dirt and left the fresh graveyard, stepping robotically: onto the porch; over the cassette player; closing the door.
All while she watched. And she knew that he knew—although in his mind the thought was forcefully blocked—that she was there, in the woods, moving with him, so smooth and quick and silent, watching his reactions. “Nine times…” The thought drew a lip above her canines. A fool turned familiarity into threats. Had he become so comfortable with what he thought was her, what she had let him witness nine times, that he was entitled to her?
She growled and left.
Thoughts of him were clear the following morning. He’d be in a confused state. Anger, fear, confusion, sorrow—a dangerous mixture. He would think of retaliation because he was a fool, then of flight because deep down she knew he wasn’t suicidal enough to have made copies of the tape, thus actually endangering her so that she’d have no choice but to kill him.
He’d have to run. He needed a weapon. He’d get frantic. He’d dig up his evidence as soon as he fell out of bed, then be out of there and in his jeep for somebody—scientist, zookeeper, vet, anybody moderately intelligent enough to see that something was unusual in this death. They’d protect him.
As Paul threw clothes on, Lilith yawned her way to her open door and rubbed her eyes.
Humidity greeted her. She loved it. She raised her arms full above her and stretched her body toward the world before getting dressed. Jeaned (as he ran outside for the shovel, asking the dog to forgive him), bloused and shoed, she walked to her porch, locked the door, and made her way through the woods until she came to the little roundabout path that pretended to snake randomly through the trees. She paced herself to make the eight miles in ten minutes.
Paul drove the shovel into the wet ground with the heel of his boot again, continuously muttering to himself that none of this was his fault, pausing only when the sticky sweat clinging to his forehead slid too close to his eyes.
While she was there.
He hadn’t noticed her. She stepped on a twig for him. He snapped erect.
He wouldn’t run.
She was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.
Dear God in heaven, he couldn’t run. He could want to run all he wanted. His brain supplied any number of escapes…but actually attempting any of them was out of the question.
Death approached him like a hiker seeking directions.
He thought of the shovel.
Her eyes fixed on him. They pierced skull and brain and exited the back of his mind. He stayed motionless as she came directly before him. A seizure of proximity lust added to the firestorm. It made him realize that this was just a woman, a woman wearing a plaid shirt and faded jeans, staring at him, a woman with brown eyes and bangs of dark hair over her forehead; right here, right now, nothing more than a woman. One who looked up at him. He was taller and bigger.
His grip tightened on the shovel.
Quietly, she glanced him up and down, even circled to inspect all the angles, stepping on no more twigs. When she faced him again he noticed something different. Her right eyebrow was raised.
She waited for him to speak.
He swallowed hard. Sweat itched his back. He wanted so badly to swing that shovel then run like hell.
It took him a moment to realize that the garbled words he haltingly heard were his own.
“Please. No. No. I’m sorry. I swear, I didn’t mean anything.”
She made him replace the soil. There was no one around for miles. She walked away. He followed.
When they reached the cabin his legs gave out.
She hoisted him up easily, then opened her door, standing aside to allow by. He stopped.
“Fighting rubber sharks is easy,” she said.
“Schlock movie stuntman. Big out-of-court settlement. Blackballed out of the biz. No more glitz. Live in the woods and be a man.”
“You think I’ve never seen a movie? This isn’t an enchanted forest. I step well out of its bounds. I recognized you.”
He’d never gotten a full ten seconds of screen time.
Lilith entered the cabin. He followed. She didn’t close the door.
“I didn’t—I didn’t…I didn’t mean anything with that tape. Swear to God. I lied anyway! I never made a copy, wouldn’t send it to anybody. Never tell anybody!”
“And you planted the dead dog hoping it’d grow back? This is real life, boy. You enjoy insulting me. That’s too bad. Tell you right now, you won’t survive the night.”
His legs gave out again. He dropped to his knees, sweaty fear assaulting her senses. If he lost control of his bowels on her floor…
“Get up! Sit.” He’d barely missed knocking into her rustic table and chair beside him. Her blue bottle sat atop it. “You enjoy the sound of your own voice too much.”
“What are you going—”
“Don’t ask questions, damn you!”
His dam broke. He had no way to hide it or his mortification, he just looked into her eyes like a frightened, whipped puppy.
A low growl filled the room and chilled skin and blood. The warm urine felt like ice. He held his breath.
The growl stopped. Annoyed that he merely sat there looking at her with that ridiculously pained face, she snapped, “You see that door? It’s hardly ever closed and not once has an animal come in here. Get back there and clean yourself off.” Back there: a yellow door in a far corner of the cabin.
His thoughts looped while he walked: there was no moon; it was not night; she was just a girl, twenty-five, twenty-eight at the most; he was bigger than her; front door was open; no moon, no night, just a--
The loop broke the instant the bathroom door shut. It was a small bathroom, not much bigger than an outhouse with a tub. Out of sight he cried freely but made certain to choke off the noise. He turned the taps full on. The tub filled quickly. She hadn’t said how long to take. He stripped and submerged till his knees stuck high above the low rim and his hair floated. After a few moments in the hot water he calmed enough to lean back and close his eyes, to try to think.
Then he looked down at himself and saw the idiot rod pointing. Lust and fear. He viewed the erection as though it were something alien. It was oblivious to the situation; it was a fool. He forced a deep breath and allowed the water to soothe him; to provide him with the fantasy that she wasn’t going to kill him. Who kills after permitting a bath? Five full minutes he high-wired that tenuous thread, then she knocked on the door. She didn’t say anything, just that single rap. He scooped water and rubbed grime off his face. Dried quickly. Nothing to wear but the towel. Large red towel. He gathered his clothes and boots.
“Wanna clean this up now?”
“Where’s your—Do you have a mop?”
She pointed it out. He dropped the clothes by the table and quickly dabbed the spot. He worked at angles where his front wouldn’t be seen for more than a glimpse. When finished he sat. He kept his hands against his lap.
“Paul. What did you think I would do, Paul?”
“What do you know about me, Paul? I’ll bet you’re more ignorant than I credit.”
“Are you going to kill me?”
She dismissed it with a wave. “It’s early. How old are you?”
“Don’t know much about sex then. You think that little erection occupies me?”
She looked directly at it. He pressed harder.
“Let the damn thing go.” She felt his heart jump from where she sat.
“You can’t just murder me,” he blurted. “Jesus, you’ll be found when they look for me.”
She unbuttoned her blouse.
He trailed the soft V of flesh. Her shirttails cleared the jeans.
She wished there was a moon visible, or the stars.
“You’re not special, are you, Paul?”
“I’m just a guy.”
“How many just guys like you? Just regular guys. How many?”
She caught a dart-like whiff of fear from him.
He studied her for reaction, hoping to see something. A smile. A softening. If she smiled that would be good. He might live.
“The roads we take, Paul. You were dead when you decided I was prey.” Here there be wolves. She went to her cupboard.
When she came back with the packet and a lemon he stammered, “What’s that?”
She swallowed the one then bit the other, her eyes on him the whole time. “We travel the road, we pay the toll.”
To his clogged ears it sounded like she said “troll.”
That night, when her talons dug into his back—not viciously but to pick him up, take him out of her home, and out of her life, back to be buried with his dog, the moon and stars were out. The rains had gone. She searched the interior of his cabin. Nothing of interest beyond weapons and accumulated stuff.
She left his door wide open so animals could enter.
Then Lilith went home.
You're not a tribble. You're not a porn actor. You're not John Henry. How do you keep doing it, that thing you do, when there's no immediate reward? Let's say you're a writer. Most creative people will tell you they only want money so they can have the time and mental freedom to keep creating. Using myself as example, I need lots of quietude and mental solitude to zone into anything worth putting on paper. I don't get either. Welcome to the club, eh? We do what we do with what we've got, and Lord knows we ain't got a lot. So how do you keep at it? That's not rhetorical. "What's the point?" will jump you as if you owe it money and, in a way, it thinks you do. If you're approaching your creativity as being your livelihood then, yeah, you wanna get paid. Let's caps lock it to avoid any semblance of being meek about this particular aspect of our creative endeavors: YOU WANT TO GET PAID. And if the nays keep outweighing the yays, motivation can tank.
So take a moment to write a letter to yourself in the form of a blog, a tweet, an update, or a private journal entry, that's what you do. You tie that thread in your brain to the ALL, and you write, draw, compose, sculpt, rehearse like the sun itself is coming up, because you are good at it. Period.
You're good at what you do. There's a nugget of fun in accepting that, a nugget of ego--natch--and a nowhere-near-impotent hit of defiance. You remind yourself that if your prime motivator had been to make money, you'd have done so. So there's gotta be more to what's going on, right? Not just buy me, review me, buy me again--something else happening, yes? You wanna call it your Calling, go right ahead. Mission, duty, destiny--hell, Luke Skywalker the hell out of it.
You will need to pep talk yourself, don't think you won't. That's how you root out ennui and woe, 'cause what you're missing ain't money or fame, it's connection. Your imagination is not a commodity, it's a lifeline.
Best remember that.
The only thing that motivates you is you reaching inside, outward, through and past You. This didn't take long at all. Get out there, ya lunk, and do the do.
So I'm in Wee Nephew's classroom trying to discretely fit one of my asscheeks on a tiny chair while waiting for his class to be called outside for field-and-play day. He's already hugged me and forgotten me, or so I thought until, looking up from the book I'd brought (See You In The Cosmos by Jack Cheng), I notice kids darting glances at me while he works the room. Then I overhear him tell a moppet, "My uncle writes books," and the moppet's eyes brighten. I realize he's been telling every table in the room. Tiny smiley bodies start approaching me. "Do you really write books?" "What kind of books do you write?" "Have you done a Star Wars book?" (this by a kid who mistook the Enterprise shirt I wore for Luke & Co; I let him slide)
I told them I write science fiction for grown ups but I've been working on a book for kids. They lit up. When one kid left, another one came up. There's another classroom in another school that I owe a book to too. I haven't forgotten. The kids today reminded me that there's still excitement in the word. Kids want to be amazed. They want stories. No matter how gadget-driven we think they are, they haven't forgotten that books are magic.
I'm glad they reminded me.
It kinda starts with what do you intend to do. I harp on this a lot because I feel it deeply. What is the "gift"? What are you presenting beyond two covers with pages to fill? Adventure, fun, love, insight, laughs, uneasiness, scares; it can be one of these, it can be all of these, but you as writer must feel it first. Without that mental/emotional connection you're just helping to pass time on the subway ride home, which I'll accept as your intent but you can do a lot more. You can start your zombie apocalypse book by telling me a ton of information like so:
“Ships never came to us anymore. It had been four years. Four long, terrible years of plague and death…and them. The zombies of Station Five. That’s where they first came out. The Midas Genetics lab in Station Five. It was the biggest medical renovation corporation allowed on-planet, nothing now but a huge mausoleum. There was no safe haven anywhere. We didn’t know what we would do, but we would survive…”
Or you can hit me with this:
"There weren't enough of us left to dispose of the bodies." Yes? Because that carries the dread of the situation, and that's what you want me to feel. In the first you described it to me. You wanted me to see your idea. You would have gone on to tell me the color of the doors, the exact look of Dr. Nina Haagen, and what model futuristic smart car took the space zombies to hospitals all over the world when they stumbled into them and mumbled, "Brains." In short, you wanted to create a movie in your reader's head complete with voice-over and tracking shot, and by then our relationship is already tenuous. We're just not connecting. Hush now. Don't speak. It's better this way. You don't trust me; what do we have without that?
More accurately, you don't trust my imagination. Listen, we're both adults. You're not my first zombie apocalypse and I'm not your first reader. Let's be real. I don't care about Dr. Nina's symmetrical freckles and neither do you. We both know Nina's cute, capable and, despite several close calls, will survive this story. So instead tell me about Nina's suppressed self doubt; tell me why the worst of humanity loves showing itself when situations are grim; clue me into the fact that Nina has no desire to save the colony at all but will do all she can because "failure is not an option" was the mantra that got her through high school and her current life of solitude.
The second example: you made me feel. As a reader I now love you. A wonderful writer friend of mine wrote about the problematic trap of needing to create a "movie in a reader's mind." Allow me to paraphrase:
Two major issues that seem to be a common thread with this tactic:
1. Describing every scene, every character, every movement in minute detail;
2. Providing far too much "historical" detail in large chunks, when it doesn’t serve to further the storyline.
In the first instance, novel-writing is being approached like writing a screenplay… but they are very different beasties entirely. With a screenplay, the goal is to provide as much minute detail as possible so that the directors can create the scene exactly as the writer has envisioned it, from the buttons on a frock coat to a head tilt. Every line of dialogue, every hand gesture, every step, all plotted out in order to bring the writer's world to life on screen.
With novels, one has to take a very different approach, and provide only as much information as necessary so that the readers can imagine the world themselves. That’s one of the greatest pleasures when reading a novel: conjuring what a character looks like, or what people might be wearing, according to one’s own preferences.
As for historical detail, it's a wonderful thing, and it’s great to be able to learn bits and pieces of history (whether real or purely fanciful) as we read, but it’s another thing entirely for the forward momentum of a story to be halted by a Wikipedia stub where a paragraph should be. The key really is to dole out tidbits sparingly (only the most relevant ones at that) and in such a way that they don’t appear to be a history lesson dressed up as prose. If they are of absolute relevance to the story and help to move it forward, wonderful: ease them in at the right moments. If they’re just “interesting”? Leave them out.
Coax the story out in such a way that you’re captivating the reader, piquing their interest and keeping their attention as little gems are revealed one by one. If there's one piece of advice I can impart, it's to read and read and read… and read some more. Immerse yourself in the kinds of novels you're aiming to write, and see what works and doesn't work in terms of other authors' approaches to world creation.
Wonderful advice. And so very correct. We all have different skill levels when it comes to writing and conjuring, but very often a writer commits the disservice of information-overload, leaving the reader with the impression of reading the author's notes, research, and early draft rather than the engaged final effort. This is where re-writing comes in. It comes hard.Think of writing as though you’re a human 3D printer. First draft is you pre-scanning the source material: you want all the details you can glean of your imaginary world in order to present a usable replica. Second draft, you’ve adjusted the preview scan and tightened the parameters; now you can go for it. You can hit ‘scan’.Third draft: you are a multi-handed printhead working like crazy to mold that scan into something a reader will ooh and ahh over. Your goal as writer is to get in my head. Direct where those oohs and ahhs occur. See, just as in movies, you’re a director (a good director; no jerky cam jump cuts), but where cinema gets to show Rosario Dawson in her glory, you get to impart the feeling of that awesome glory as concisely as possible. Find your inner Akira Kurosawa. Rather than trying too hard to describe what's in your head, make your reader feel *why* it's there and why the reader should care. Don't spend so much time setting the scene that you forget to heed that important nuance. Personally, I run from writers who want their vision so clear in my head I might as well not be there. It contributes to lazy writing (and lazy reading, which we’ll get to another time).
In my own work I generally give few descriptors. I tend more toward the Harryhausen mode of visual imagination than the goal of today’s current CG artists who give us both spittle and snot on conjured beasties. I love technical prowess, I love research and the artistry needed to create wonders. However, for an effect to be "special" one must be judicious with it no matter the art form. I like to think Ray Harryhausen, given 21st century computing power, would still go for the feel of the monster rather than just hyper-reality. Today's effects guys detail their pieces all the way down to random spittle and snot flying from the maw of every roaring dragon. That's not your job as a novel writer. Everybody wants dragons. We love dragons. Space dragons. Historically accurate dragons. Well-realized rom-com dragons. Even zombie dragons.
Nobody wants spittle and snot.
Life, the universe, and everything creative
Towel Photo credit: EvelynGiggles via Foter.com / CC BY